Tom Nichols’ THE DEATH OF EXPERTISE: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Oxford, 2017) is one of the better in the batch of recent books I’ve read about current events and how they reflect issues of science and human nature. Nichols is a professor and former aide in the US Senate, with several previous books on Russian and nuclear policy. (Also – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Nichols_(academic) – he’s a five-time Jeopardy champion, and member of the Never Trump movement, who left the Republican party after the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.)
Again, my notes on this run over 3000 words, and I’ll post them here, with a paragraph summary on the reviews page.
The US is proud of its ignorance, in ways that are unlike the traditional dislike of intellectuals. People resist learning and yet have firm opinions about everything; they not only dismiss expertise, but do so with anger. It’s a kind of narcissism, an exercise in self-actualization.
Perhaps there was too much deference to experts in the past; experts got us to the moon, but also into the Vietnam war. Yet now people hiss at eggheads and believe themselves as smart as everyone else.
This book grew out of a blog post, at The Federalist.
Quote by Asimov about the cult of ignorance in America. [I have this on my Quotes page]
Recalls AIDS denialists in the early ‘90s, ideas picked up by the president of South Africa, leading to absence of proper treatments and 300,000 lives.
Americans have strong opinions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite not knowing where it is on the map; in fact, the greatest support for military intervention was from those who knew the least.
These are dangerous times. People reject rules of evidence and principles of argument. We may be witnessing the death of expertise itself: “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” P3.3
We get celebrities opining about vaccines or medical treatments. It’s not that experts don’t exist; it’s that people no longer engage with them. Recalls Robert Hughes [his book Culture of Complaint, I think], 5m, in which Americans are skeptical of authority and prey to superstition.
What can we do about it? The usual response is to blame the internet, and that’s partly true. But it goes beyond that, in ways that may even seem a kind of progress: knowledge is no longer secrets guarded by experts, as was true decades ago when most people never finished even high school. Yet the danger is that Americans think they are as smart as everyone else; the opposite of education.
He outlines the book, pp7-12.
Ch1, Experts and Citizens
We all know know-it-alls who have opinions about everything (e.g. a character on Cheers); now everyone is becoming like that, and this is a bad thing, because society functions by a division of labor and a reliance on experts and professionals, p14.6. Heinlein was wrong in his famous quote about how “specialization is for insects.”
Is this really new? Democracies have always been open to new ideas. Alexis de T noted how Americans were self-reliant and distrustful of authority, in 1835. Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1930 (about his own country) that the average reader reads not to learn, but to pronounce judgement if the writer does not agree with something already believed.
This self-reliance gradually fell away, as technology and global society expanded; as Richard Hofstadter wrote, in 1963, how Americans were dependent on devices he doesn’t understand, with an attendant resentment of those who do.
But is this really a problem? No one needs to know everything. The problem is hostility to knowledge. Not just among yokels; vaccine resistance is high even in wealthy Marin county. This is dangerous; another example of the fad to consume raw milk, despite the dangers, even by some master chefs. The CDC fought back, and was ignored.
Some would say, experts have been wrong before, so why listen to them now? Because even being wrong on occasion, they are far more often right.
Low-information voters result in policy debates among ill-informed people “who all manage to be wrong at the same time” 25.6. Examples: ignorance about ACA, about how taxes are spent, about how much goes to foreign aid; popular opinions about these are way off.
So what are experts? In general, “experts are the people who know considerably more on a subject than the rest of us, and are those to whom we turn when we need advice, education, or solutions in a particular area of human knowledge” 29b.
But there are typical specific criteria:
• Credentials: evidence from peers that they have achieved a particular level of competence, e.g. university degrees
• Natural talent, or aptitude. Not everyone with a degree can perform as an expert.
• Experience. Those who’ve survived in their fields and use their experience to apply to new problems, even instinctively.
• And self-policing: evaluation and correction by other experts. Peer reviews, board certifications, and so on.
Still, even experts who aren’t the best in their fields are better than you – e.g. the average dentist pulling a tooth. They may make mistakes, but far less likely than a layperson, and they learn from the mistakes they make. Self-trained experts are rare. You can’t become an expert by reading a book a month, p38t.
Popular culture fuels romantic notions of how common people might outperform experts – Good Will Hunting. But these are unrealistic. Both experts and laypeople are human, and share similar problems….
Ch2, How Conversation Became Exhausting
Like the Monty Python skit. Frankly, some people just aren’t too bright. But don’t realize it – this is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, identified in 1999; people overestimate their own skill or knowledge to a degree that’s proportional to their lack of skill or knowledge. They lack a skill called ‘metacognition.’ P45. In one study, participants claimed familiarity with various technical terms, including some that were simply made-up, p46t.
Another issue is confirmation bias, with examples from Rain Man, which blends into issues of innumeracy (Paulos) and fears of flying, and AIDS hysteria. At the same time, this is a feature, not a bug; people can’t analyze every situation from scratch, and instead rely on what they already know. Scientists struggle to overcome this (note how this tied to Bayesian analysis). Example, the gay marriage study—people wanted to believe the conclusion, so didn’t examine the evidence as they should have (the author of the study made it up). This is why scientists conduct peer reviews. While ordinary people often made claims that aren’t subject to confirmation, i.e. they are nonfalsifiable. And most people are unaware of the nature of the scientific method, with its cycle of hypothesis, testing, and analysis. So why isn’t common sense good enough? Because common sense only works in day-to-day matters. Common sense told us the sun went around the earth. P54.
Superstitions and conspiracy theories rely on confirmation bias, and some of them are harmless, e.g. not walking under a ladder. Conspiracy theories though are complicated, with every new bit of evidence somehow taken to be in support of the conspiracy. A good rule is Occam’s Razor, to prefer the simplest possible explanation; but conspiracy theories are popular, as in historical events and popular novels by Robert Ludlum. They’re attractive because they seem to make sense of an otherwise complicated world; and they appeal to a streak of narcissism involved, and a preference not to believe that life is random and the universe uncaring. They can be attractive to entire societies, as after traumatic episodes of history. Currently many Americans believe in secret cabals or mind-control technology, 59b. And they’re impossible to refute.
Generalizations are common, and at the root of science, while stereotypes are pernicious. Generalizations are testable, but they are not explanations. Stereotypes are conclusions.
Another factor is that people are generally deferential, being social creatures, even when wrong. It’s impolite to point out when someone is wrong, or to acknowledge that some people aren’t as bright as others. This isn’t a good situation for identifying facts. People tend to fake cultural literacy, as a means of preserving self-image. We interpret events based on our own self-definitions, e.g. causes of unemployment. And this applies to both sides; Haidt: “almost everyone finds a way to stick with their values and reject the evidence” 69.3 Both sides have occasion to reject science.
Is education the answer? No, it’s part of the problem.
Ch3, Higher Education: the customer is always right
Higher education, those magical 7 years, are part of the problem, wherein students learn that the customer is always right. [they do?] This is largely because so many people attend college these days, compared to before WWII. Universities fail to teach students how to recognize expertise, including critical thinking. Students no longer get a ‘college education’; they ‘go to college.’ Students become clients. But there are too many students, and too many ‘professors’ and too many ‘universities’ (many that were once just community colleges), so that education is no longer their mission.
Rather, college is no longer a challenging experience; it’s client-centered, where ‘universities’ are desperate for students and cater to their needs, where students expect to be affirmed, and where getting low grades is the teacher’s fault!
These come about because of overprotective parenting; because of affluence, that enables students to mount up debts, and enables them to make numerous campus visits even before applying, making decisions about which place to attend based on things like the dining hall experience. And so students are emboldened to make curriculum demands, e.g. to abolish a course on English poets because they’re all white European males. Where students ask help on Twitter, and are outraged by being corrected (e.g by an expert on Sarin).
Email – and students assume they can email their professors anytime, undermining the deference professors would expect of their students. The idea of what students owe their teachers, p86-7, is obsolete. P88
Too many universities are generic, out of competition among them, and so many of them offer postsecondary degrees that the worth of these degrees is diluted. Every school offers ‘gut’ courses, and is caught in the grade-inflation trap. There’s really no solution for that.
P96 Student evaluations
P98, College is not a safe space; demanding that they be so surrenders intellectual authority, as emotion trumps all. Example of Halloween costumes at Yale in 2015. And so we have “the bizarre paradox in which college students are demanding to run the school while at the same time insisting that they be treated like children.”
[[ Feb 2019: more recently there’s an entire book on this theme: THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt ]]
Ch4, Let Me Google That for You: how unlimited information is making us dumber
The main culprit of the death of expertise is the internet. There is the answer to anything. Various laws: Godwin’s, about Hitler; Pommer’s, about a person changing from having no opinion to having the wrong one; Skitt’s, how any message correcting an error will have another error itself, p107. And Sturgeon’s law. Anyone can post anything, and answers are superficial—if not fake.
Everything is fake; the fact checkers can’t keep up. And bad news stays online for years; examples, e.g. Allen West.
P115, Safe. There are industries in misinformation; Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP. Robert F. Kennedy Jr on vaccines. Experts do make mistakes, rarely; but they get disproportional publicity. The internet is like a vanity press, and surfing leads to unwarranted confidence of knowledge. People don’t read whole articles; they browse headlines; society is dumbing down.
P122, Wisdom of mega-crowds. Sometimes crowds rather than individuals are better at estimation, or at detecting problems, like Dan Rather’s report about Bush’s military record. Wikipedia is another example, but one that shows the limitations of this trend: most contributors are hobbyists, and there are more extensive entries about games and porn stars than about e.g. female novelists. Its best articles have high standards – like peer-reviewed scholarship – but that rarely works. The ease of updating undermines the authority of experts.
P128, Unfriend. On the internet we associate with people like us, and not with others. There is less diversity, and the illusion of egalitarianism, when everyone has a blog or webpage. AO Scott; Andrew Sullivan—too much democracy, 130b. (“keyboard courage” that allows people to say things they would never say in person).
You can try to comment on false claims, but this brings on the backfire effect. Best not to respond at all.
So, do journalists do better?
Ch5, The “New” New Journalism, and Lots of It
Yes the press makes mistakes: how chocolate is good for you; a piece on Vox about a Palestinian bridge; a mischaracterization of Easter by the NYT; Time thinking Evelyn Waugh was a woman. Others from years ago. The paradox now is, there is more news, but people are actually less informed. P138
How did this happen? Technology, and capitalism. There’s too much of everything (more TVs, more news shows), and too much news is close to entertainment.
It all goes back to radio. When FM was formed to offer better sound, AM became interactive, with talk radio and phone calls, that enabled this challenging of authority and broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh, undermining traditional sources of news. Liberals, oddly, weren’t attracted to the format, while Limbaugh would attack “government, academia, science, and the media” as the “four corners of deceit.” He and his like (Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity) routinely run stories of outrageous rumors that are never retracted.
The next step was cable TV, and the 24-hours news cycle, inspired by the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979; ABC created Nightline, running around the clock – with so much time to fill, their guests often undermined expert reporting. Then came CNN in 1980, then C-SPAN, HLN, and in 1996 Fox News, hosted by beauty queens. Politics became entertainment.
All of them have some kind of bias, 154…
Trust no one: author has given advice to students about consuming news: follow the papers, watch at least two networks; read one journal with which you consistently disagree, p155. Oddly, The Daily Show is one of ‘most trusted’ news sources. The variety of sources allows people to pick and choose whatever confirms their existing beliefs, 157, and yet still distrust the information they receive.
159, are viewers smarter than the experts? Author thinks journalists, for the most part, know what they’re doing. Even as standards have fallen; how younger journalists think it’s just like blogging. Ironically, it might have been better when journalists weren’t experts, but rather high school graduates. Younger people now don’t have the energy to research a complex story, like GMOs, 161. There is lack of basic knowledge, like where countries are, or the statistics behind the Rolling Stone hoax story, or the misunderstanding of statistics behind veteran suicides, 166.
What is to be done: Experts: learn to say no; don’t have an opinion about everything. Consumers: be humble, less cynical, more discriminating, outlined p168.
Ch6, When the Experts Are Wrong, p170
Stories of the claim that discrimination against the Irish was a hoax; it wasn’t. That eggs were bad for you; experts changed their minds. That the Soviet Union, in ’82, would not collapse. Experts can be wrong, but we have no choice: we’re shocked by their failures because they’re so rare.
Several kinds of failure. One is not being careful with the ordering process of science. (And some mistakes can have beneficial effects.)
Or, extending their expertise to other fields.
Or, trying to predict (what the public wants) rather than explain.
And most extreme: deliberate fraud.
When they go bad, 179: punishments do exist for misconduct. Ward Churchill, who compared 9/11 victims to Nazis; Andrew Wakefield. Most misconduct is dull. The gold standard is replicability, yet ½ of psychology experiments couldn’t be. [[ reason for this not mentioned: the easy stuff has already been discovered ]]
Maybe some studies are inherently unreproducible; the study itself was rebutted. Many require interpretation.
Outright fraudsters include Michael Bellesiles, in a study about guns, who apparently invented his sources; David Barton, whose book on Jefferson was retracted.
It’s important to realize that no single study has such a wide impact to cause irreparable harm.
188, the assumption that expertise extends. Celebrities are the worst. In 1985 three actresses were invited to speak before Congress…because they had played farmers wives. Lately we have Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, Linus Pauling and vitamin C, Jenny McCarthy and vaccines. Helen Caldecott, a pediatrician who pretended expertise on nuclear weapons. Chomsky on everything.
It’s a paradox that the public mistrusts experts, yet pays attention to their opinions on everything.
Predictions are a problem, since experts aren’t necessarily very good at it. Asimov quote 197t, “Gee, that’s funny.” Taleb identifies the ‘black swan’ problem. Tetlock in 2005 made a study of expert predictions, 201m, and found that ‘foxes’ outperform ‘hedgehogs’, because the latter have difficulty extending their narrow expertise to other fields. Lessons…
205, repair. We might need fewer ‘popularizers.’ Watch their track records, cf Tetlock. B Russell: the public should exercise skepticism and humility.
We need to balance the ego of experts with the narcissism of laypeople who think they can ignore them…
Conclusion, Experts and Democracy.
Experts have been dismissed in emotional issues like Brexit, and how Trump thinks he doesn’t need any. Recall Trump’s siding with birtherism, antivaccines, Scalia’s death as a murder, Cruz’ father in JFK. His ignorance on the nuclear triad. And many people simply don’t care. His support came from the uneducated; the Dunning-Kruger effect at work. Yet why would such voters believe the ‘elites’ were conspiring against them? In part because of the behavior of those politicians, as when they assume the public is too stupid to understand. But the ultimate responsibility lies with the citizens of the US.
Our democracy depends on division of labor, which leads to the creation of professions. Dictatorships work less well because they extract expertise by threat. (Footnote about a Trek episode: Nazis were not more efficient…)
The relationship between experts and citizens, like almost all relationships in a democracy, is built on trust. When that trust collapses, experts and laypeople become warring factions. And when that happens, democracy itself can enter a death spiral that presents an immediate danger of decay either into rule by mob or toward elitist technocracy. Both are authoritarian outcomes, and both threatens the United States today.
Susan Jacoby identifies an arrogance among Americans about lack of knowledge; they are becoming anti-rational, moving back toward folk wisdom and myths passed by word of mouth, 217.4 [[ like flat earthers! ]]
218, keep in the mind the distinction between experts and policy makers. There are five misconceptions about the influence of experts. They are not puppeteers; they cannot know how leaders implement their advice; they are unable to guide a policy from conception to execution; they cannot know how much of their advice leaders will take; and they can only offer alternatives, not choose values.
Republic, if you know what that is 225: most people don’t. We’re a republic, not a full democracy. Many are uninformed, and the most poorly informed are those most dismissive of experts, 227b. Example of Jimmy Kimmel and man on the street questions. Many people cannot find Syria, or Ukraine, on a map.
As good as you, 231. Democracy means political equality – not actual equality, a confusion which leads many to think that “I’m just as good as you”. Example from Lewis’ Screwtape Letters; it’s a notion that can lead to the death of democracies.
234, revolt. Can’t avoid ending in pessimism. Many professionals seem fed up, ready to give up. Some, like medical doctors, are fighting back. Yet author thinks this may end in disaster, a war or economic collapse. Americans can rally themselves, but they always slip back into complacency. Andrew Sullivan on how elites still matter, p237.
Without experts to serve democracy, and laypeople to accept their reality, unfounded opinions will rule and anything and everything becomes possible—including the end of democracy and republican government.
Dispositive, 130.8 –dealing with the settlement of property, or disputed territories.
Personal comment: My take is that the vast majority of people live out their lives without thinking about big issues at all. In a fundamental sense, as I’ve said, it doesn’t matter to most people whether the earth goes around the sun, or vice versa; they live their lives and create the next generation. The truth is out there, for those attentive enough to pay attention. It’s not necessary to educate the masses. If the masses make bad decisions, reality will strike back, whether through resurgence of diseases, or climate change, and the survivors will eventually learn.